Carlsbad Caverns National Park: The Complete Guide

Sword of Damacles, Carlsbad Caverns
Doug Meek / Getty Images

Explore 119 caves, created when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone, in one of the largest cave systems in America at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Located in the Chihuahuan Desert in southeastern New Mexico, not far from the Texas border, Carlsbad Caverns has two districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the Cavern Historic District and the Rattlesnake Springs Historic District. Mescalero Apaches survived in the area, in the Guadalupe Mountains, followed by Spanish explorers, and then in 1930, Carlsbad Caverns was designated a national park.

Today, you can hike in the canyons and see the Big Room and Natural Entrance on your own or join an informative ranger-guided tour (tour tickets must be purchased in advance). Hike on the surface, outside of the caverns, on one of the many trails, and learn about the bats essential to the ecosystem. And, if you love the night sky—and who doesn't?—then join a ranger-led night tour and geek out over the Milky Way during a telescope program, star walk, moon walk, or meteor shower viewing. There’s a visitor center, which is a helpful place to plan out your adventure. See the park film, stroll through the exhibits, speak to a park ranger, and pop in the bookstore, gift shop, or restaurant.

Things to Do

Your gateway to adventure begins on one of two trails. The most popular is the 1.25-mile Big Room Trail, where you can wander through the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America. Give yourself a couple of hours to explore. You’ll see the Hall of giants, Bottomless Pit, and Crystal Spring Dome. Other interesting cave formations include The Caveman, Chandelier, Chinese Theater, Doll’s Theater, Longfellow’s Bathtub, Rock of Ages, Temple of the Sun, Totem Pole, and Giant and Twin Domes. The Big Room also has a cutoff if you find that you’re claustrophobic or just want a shorter trail—the shortcut is a total of 0.6 miles, which should take about 45 minutes to hike. Also, parts of the Big Room Trail are accessible via wheelchair—the visitor center can assist you in planning.

The Natural Entrance Trail is the second and less populated option. Not accessible for wheelchairs or people with disabilities, this 1.25-mile trail is remarkably steep and challenging. You can expect to gain and lose about 750 feet of elevation, and the hike takes about one hour, on average, to complete. However, you’ll be rewarded with views of Devil’s Spring, the Whale’s Mouth, Devil’s Den, the Twilight Zone, Witch’s Finger, and Iceberg Rock, hiking on the same route that early explorers took themselves.

One of the most spectacular wildlife experiences is seeing the Brazilian free-tailed bats fly out of the Carlsbad Cavern each night in the summer in search of food. The park’s Bat Flight Program (May—October) includes an evening ranger talk each evening before the flight. You’ll sit in an amphitheater for this free program—no reservations are required. On the third Saturday of July, visitors can watch the bats return to the cave during a ranger-led Dawn of the Bats annual celebration.

Best Hikes & Trails

In addition to the two central self-guided trail systems in the caves, there are several surface-level trails to enjoy. Be sure to wear proper footwear and bring enough water, food, and sun protection for the adventure. It’s a smart idea to stop by the visitor center before you head out to experience the splendor of the Guadalupe Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert. You’ll need to discuss the weather as well as trail safety. For backpacking, it’s necessary to have sufficient water, food, and shelter. You’ll also need to bring a first-aid kit, headlamp, navigation tools and maps, and appropriate clothing layers.

  • Walnut Canyon Overlook: At 180 yards, easily accessible from the parking lot, this is the shortest and easiest surface trail in the park. You’ll reach an overlook and be able to take beautiful photographs on this trail that begins along the paved road to the visitor center.
  • Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail: Also easy, accessible, and short, this .5-mile trail is mainly paved. Take note of the markers along the way, noting the desert flora, and enjoy the wide-open spaces that you’ll see.
  • Slaughter Canyon Cave Trail: You’ll need to drive yourself to the trailhead and meet a ranger for this guided cave tour. You’ll gain 500 feet in elevation over a half mile and enjoy stunning views of Slaughter Canyon. This is a rugged trail, not for the faint of heart. Sturdy hiking boots are required.
  • Old Guano Trail: One of the most popular trails in the park, hikers here will begin at the dirt road next to the Natural Entrance to the cavern. You’ll wander on the historic route, which used to haul bat excrement in the early 1900s and see mining ruins. The 3.7-mile trail ends at White's City campground.
  • Juniper Ridge: This easy, 3.5-mile trail is a must-do when visiting the park. Enjoy expansive views and take many photographs while on the trail and the picturesque Desert Loop Road.
  • Lower Rattlesnake Canyon: This moderate three-mile trail, with an elevation change of 600 feet, is available for overnight camping with a permit.
  • Yucca Canyon: If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you’ll easily make it to the trailhead for this challenging 7.7-mile hike, with an elevation change of 1,520 feet, where incredible basin outlooks await. You’ll travel on foot across the plateau until you can see a view of the Big Canyon. Expect the hike to take 8.5 hours, one-way, and keep in mind that a free permit is required for overnight camping.
  • Guadalupe Ridge: Overnight camping requires a free permit for this difficult 12-mile trail, which will take about 14 hours to complete. The elevation change is 2,050 feet, which will give you incredible views.
  • The Guadalupe Ridge Trail, a designated National Recreation Trail, is 100 miles long, which provides an adventurous wilderness experience for backpackers in the Chihuahuan Desert and the Guadalupe Mountains. You’ll begin at Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and continue through the Lincoln National Forest and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) before ending at Carlsbad Caverns National Park (for 21 miles) in White City, New Mexico.

Where to Camp

While no overnight lodging, RV parking, or campgrounds are available at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, primitive permitted camping is allowed in the backcountry (free). The park’s visitor center issues the permits, which are only available upon arrival. The park is also surrounded by BLM land, and permit-free RV and tent camping is permitted when you contact the BLM office at 575-234-5972.

  • White’s City RV Park: This is the closest camping and RV park that you’ll find near Carlsbad Caverns. Spots are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

    Home2 Suites by Hilton Carlsbad: With an outdoor swimming pool, fitness center, and open-air grilling space, this is a comfortable and affordable option for overnight stays in nearby Carlsbad, located about 20 miles from the park.

    Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Camping is also available at this national park, located 40 minutes away across the border in Texas.

How To Get There

The park is located just over 300 miles from Albuquerque. Only one entrance road, which extends for seven miles from the park gate at White’s City to the visitor center and cavern entrance, is available into the park: Carlsbad Caverns Highway. You’ll drive north for 20 miles from US Hwy 62/180 at White’s City, New Mexico.

Additionally, Greyhound and TNM&O bus lines serve Carlsbad. Rental cars are available from the Carlsbad airport.

Tips For Your Visit

  • Ranger-led tours must be arranged in advance as availability is limited. All tickets must be picked up at the visitor center at least 30 minutes ahead of the tour.
  • Proper footwear, with closed-toes and good tread, is essential for exploring the cave systems.
  • Children younger than 4 years old are not permitted on any ranger-led cave tour.
  • When hiking, especially in the backcountry, stay on marked trails to protect the fragile desert ecosystem.
  • Pets are not allowed in the amphitheater or the public spaces at the park.